Good Deeds

Document imaging helps land recorders and registries speed public access to legal documents.

by / February 28, 1997
Along the East Coast of the United States there are county registries of deeds that were in business back during the Civil War -- not the one between the North and the South in the 1860s, but the one fought between England's King Charles and Parliament's Oliver Cromwell back in the 1640s.

Along with arresting criminals and collecting taxes, administering land records is one of our government's oldest public duties. Unfortunately, managing land records has changed little since the days when Cromwell's Roundheads were routing the Royalists across the English countryside.

Except for microfilm machines and cash registers, most land registries have continued using centuries-old processes involving leather-bound books and hand-written entries to record and file deeds and other land documents. Today, many registries are stuffed to the rafters with documents, making it harder for staff to keep up with demand and costing tax dollars to run a system that is supposed to generate revenue.

But since the early 1990s, counties have begun changing how they do business, thanks to document imaging. By converting paper documents into electronic images, land registries are not only decreasing their space needs while reducing stress on staff, but are also finding new (and better) ways to serve customers while generating more revenue.

"Without a doubt, imaging has improved public accessibility and helped generate more revenue for the county," said Kathy McCullough-Testa, recorder of deeds for Washington County, Pa. McCullough-Testa is just one of hundreds of recorders and registrars who have modernized their departments with imaging. Judging by most accounts, the conversion to imaging can be costly and take time for benefits to have an effect, but as McCullough-Testa said, "computerization is the only way to go."

A few short years ago, imaging for land registries was strictly a custom affair. Counties had to pay a lot of money to have a vendor or systems integrator create the kind of application that fit their needs. Today, however, registries can choose from several packages specifically designed to help manage land documents.

Unisys Corp. has its InfoImage Solution for Land Records Management, which is geared toward county registries that serve populations over 200,000. TriMin Systems Inc. has a Land Records Management System that runs on IBM's AS/400 and OS/2 platforms. Most of TriMin's customers are mid- to small-sized counties.

One of the longest running land management packages is Wang's Landtrak application. The software typifies the range of functionality and features that registrars can expect when they automate their offices with imaging. Landtrak runs on a client/server platform (Wang supports both UNIX and Windows NT), which makes the system capable of supporting anywhere from one to several hundred users.

Besides performing the now-standard task of image capture, which can include optical character recognition and document indexing, Landtrak has a document recording function that allows a registry to automatically compute fees based on
the number and type
of documents recorded. Another feature automates cash reconciliation and revenue reporting and can set up accounts while maintaining audit trails and detailed statistics on revenue.

Landtrak also provides an option that simplifies document queries and searches for public access. Many land registries that have installed imaging systems, such as Washington County, have decided to make document searches a do-it-yourself affair now that staff no longer have to physically look for the documents in question. With a viewstation and a few simple directions, patrons can locate what they are looking for without assistance in most cases.

Remote access is another feature that document imaging applications offer. Customers can use their own office computers to dial into the registry's system to search for documents via an index, view the documents in some cases and then tell the system to fax a copy of the document. These features warm
the hearts of registrars such as McCullough-Testa. "Accessibility is a big issue here. Where we are located, the parking is bad." With imaging, Washington County can provide both fax service and round-the-clock access for those who don't have time to come to the Recorder's Office during business hours.

Imaging technology has also opened up other doors to customer service. "We're looking at offering search services at libraries and from kiosks in the mall," said McCullough-Testa, who also wants to provide credit card service and, eventually, document access via the Internet. "We have to provide what the consumers want," she explained. "We're just trying to prepare for that."

Using the Internet to access document images of deeds would certainly put land registries at the forefront of today's technology revolution. But before they get there, registries have to learn to walk before they run.

Just paying for an imaging system can be sobering, even in these days of low-cost hardware and software. Most land registries have to convert backfiles of land documents before their systems show any real benefit. This task can be outsourced, but at 10 cents per page on average, backfile conversion can significantly boost the cost of imaging.

For many registries, document imaging represents their first foray into information technology and its Byzantine world of glitches, bugs and error messages. Some registries will require a lot of technical support to manage everything from local area networks to UNIX programs.

And then there
are the new duties the staff have to perform. Imaging needs humans to prepare and scan the paper documents and then check the images to ensure their quality before they are permanently stored on optical discs. Along with indexing the documents in the computer's database, these tasks did not exist prior to imaging.

But if a registry can weather these changes with good planning and management, then benefits -- ranging from higher staff productivity and improved customer accessibility to lower operating costs -- will begin to kick in over time. Whether the new process stays around as long as the leather-bound books is another matter.


PROBLEM/SITUATION: Registries and recorders of deeds are classic examples of government processes driven by paper. They are slow and inefficient.

SOLUTION: Document imaging has proven successful at speeding public access to land records while cutting processing costs.

JURISDICTION: Washington County, Pa.

VENDORS: Wang, Unisys, TriMin Systems.

[ March Table of Contents]